NFC East: Dallas Cowboys
McClain and Crawford went through their third straight day of a full practice on Friday and are listed as probable for Sunday’s game. Neither played Nov. 9 against the Jacksonville Jaguars but McClain was active.
McClain leads the Cowboys with 68 tackles, and Crawford is second on the team in quarterback hurries with 20.
Cornerback Tyler Patmon was ruled out with a knee injury and could need 2-3 more weeks for his sprained medial collateral ligament to heal.
Quarterback Tony Romo (back), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder) and defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin) are also probable. Brent is looking to be active for his first game since Dec. 2, 2012, but there are no guarantees he will be on the 46-man roster for the game.
A 45-7 loss at Green Bay the previous week forced owner Jerry Jones to do something he never wanted to do: fire a coach during the season.
So in came Garrett, then the offensive coordinator, who was faced with taking on the New York Giants on the road in his first game.
The interim head coach wanted to change the culture around Valley Ranch, everything from dress codes to the approach. And the result, at least that day in East Rutherford. New Jersey worked.
"I remember we had a really good team, and we weren't winning," defensive end Anthony Spencer said of the time. "We needed a win. I loved Wade and the year before we went to the playoffs. But things just didn't work out for us the next year."
Many players didn't really know Garrett.
To deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, Garrett was simply known for the color of his hair.
"Just knew him as Red and he was the quarterbacks coach, calling plays and then he goes by Coach Garrett," Ladouceur said. "Different freaking business now. I think he was overwhelmed, too I think every coach is thrown into it. It's like any job, you got to be a rookie at some point and you got to learn and learn on the fly, which as a NFL head coach, is even harder because you're scrutinized like crazy. But where we've been and where we're going and the way he's been handling [things] I think he's been doing a good job."
Of course, Garrett became the head coach permanently, and the Cowboys have finished the past three seasons at 8-8, missing a postseason berth with a loss in the regular-season finale.
Sunday night, Garrett takes his Cowboys, tied for first in the NFC East into MetLife Stadium again, to take on the Giants nearly four years since he became the coach.
A victory would give Garrett eight wins for the fourth consecutive season, and it would be the first time he's led a team to it's eight before December in his career. In the past three seasons, the Cowboys didn't earn it's eight victory until mid or late December.
Reaching eight victories now could fuel discussions the Cowboys might finally end their four-year playoff drought.
The players have brought into Garrett's one-game-at-a-time mantra. There are awards for scout team players, sayings posted on the walls of the practice facility about doing your job/not giving up and remaining focus on the task at hand.
Garrett has changed things from the hard nosed old-school approach of Bill Parcells and grandfatherly ways of Phillips, to how the Cowboys' did things in the 90s, when they won three Super Bowls.
Popular players such as outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware were released to make way for younger players.
“Well, we knew we had to make some hard decisions from the outset, and we had to make some decisions to move on from some players who had been cornerstone players for us and then get new players in here and along the way you have to compete. So that’s what we tried to do," Garrett said.
Along the way, they found a dominant running attack, which they have with DeMarco Murray who leads the league in rushing, and a young, hungry offensive line. The Cowboys invested three first round picks on linemen and changed the defense from a 3-4 to the 4-3, led by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli who demands his players hustle.
It's all changed for the better.
"My honest opinion, I’m just speaking on our personnel relationship, I didn’t too much understand his mindset because he went to Princeton, I’m from this small, country town [Lufkin, Texas], I didn’t understand his whole type of structure," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "I used to always think, coach, he’s always on me, he’s always on me. I guess as I grew, he didn’t treat me no different as he treated the rest of the players. He seen a lot of potential in me, and I took that as he believed in me, so it was my job to show him what he want me to be or better, and I think he does an outstanding job with us. He don’t BS around with us. He lets us know the truth."
The truth is the Cowboys have a chance to do something for themselves in the next few weeks with a win on Sunday night. But it all started that windy day at MetLife when Garrett took over the Cowboys.
Against Jacksonville, Williams didn’t catch either of the passes directed his way. It marked the first time in his career he had failed to catch a pass in a game when he had at least one pass directed his way.
In the previous game against Arizona, Williams didn’t catch a pass until the final drive. More important, the big plays have dried up.
Williams had seven catches of 20 yards or more in the Cowboys’ first six games; he has none in the last four.
Jason Garrett doesn’t seem too concerned.
“We coach him hard and he’s respectful of that and he wants to do well -- not that everyone doesn’t want to do well, so don’t get me wrong,” Garrett said of Williams. “He’s one of those guys we noticed early on that if he made a mistake, he rarely made it again.
“I think he really listens to what you’re trying to get across to him and he really wants to put into practice so he can improve as a player. I think that’s why he’s improved so quickly in the early part of his career.”
In it we discuss:
- Adrian Peterson in the future
- Tony Romo's practice schedule
- Helping Tyron Smith
- The cornerback conundrum
- Josh Brent's availability
Away we go:
@toddarcher: It certainly seems like everybody is trying to connect these dots between Adrian Peterson and the Cowboys. Some of it stems from the ESPN article on Jones earlier this season when he took a call from Peterson during a George Strait concert. Some of it has to do with Jones' penchant for stars. The first domino that has to fall is the Vikings saying goodbye to Peterson. Maybe that doesn't happen and we've all wasted a lot of breath thinking about this scenario. The threat of Peterson coming to the Cowboys could help in their talks with DeMarco Murray on a new deal. Peterson would bring a lot of baggage with him, but he's from Texas and remains a great talent. He would be an ideal fit for this offense, but so is Murray, who is younger. I don't know if either way to go would be wrong. The Cowboys have a lot of contract issues to resolve and it's not like Peterson would come cheap.
@toddarcher: I don't believe for a second that the Cowboys have not thought this through and are just focusing on the Giants. They would be doing themselves a disservice by not having a plan in place. But I do think we might be overstating this just a tad. Next week's practices aren't really practices. I'm not even sure the Cowboys will wear helmets during the three days of practice next week. They will be at most "jog-throughs," and Tony Romo should make it through those since he is doing the walk-throughs on Wednesdays when he doesn't practice. It's not that Romo can't practice on a Wednesday of a regular week. It's been the decision made by him and the team. This stretch is hardly normal but I think Romo will practice like everybody else practices next week and then gets back on the normal schedule for the Chicago Bears game. Why am I hearing Allen Iverson in my head as I type this?
@toddarcher: They are paying Tyron Smith to be the best left tackle in the NFL, so I wouldn't expect them to give him more help. He needs to play better. He has had a lot of moments where he has played like the best tackle in football. He has had some head-scratching moments too. Jason Pierre-Paul is a good player, so I wouldn't get carried away if Smith gets beat once or twice, but I don't think they need to give Smith help either. If they are sliding help to a $100 million tackle, then they have issues.
@toddarcher: I'd be surprised if Morris Claiborne isn't back. His money is guaranteed, so there is no salary-cap benefit to letting him go. They might as well see how he comes back from the knee surgery. I can guarantee they will not pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, so there's that. As for Brandon Carr, I think he could be in trouble if he does not take a cut in pay. And I'm not sure the Cowboys would offer one either, but maybe they do with him what they did with Doug Free two years ago. He is set to count $12.717 million against the cap in 2015 and I can't see the Cowboys doing a simple restructure, which would push money out against the cap in the future. He's been OK but not what they expected when he signed the $50 million deal. But if they get rid of Carr, then they put corner into the must-have territory in the draft and free agency. They would have just Orlando Scandrick as a for-sure starter.
@toddarcher: I'm not sure Josh Brent will even be active Sunday. It would be something of a surprise to me. He needs to get in better shape and he needs more practice time. I'm not sure three weeks is enough. Heck, I'm not sure four weeks is enough. But there's this question too: Whom does he bump from the 46-man roster to even be active for a game? The Cowboys like Nick Hayden more than the general fan does. Terrell McClain might be a target, but I think he has been OK too. They aren't going to take any of the defensive ends off the field. It's a difficult call without an injury to a player in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if Brent does not play at all this year.
That list included quarterback Tony Romo, who returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday.
The only player who did not practice is cornerback Tyler Patmon, who has a knee injury.
Defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin), defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (knee), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder) and linebacker Rolando McClain (knee) went through full practices.
Things are a little different for the Giants.
Four starters did not practice on Thursday: defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (calf), defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (knee), right tackle Justin Pugh (quadriceps) and linebacker Jacquian Williams (concussion).
That’s a trend that needs to stop if the Cowboys are going to achieve their goals this season.
Head coach Jason Garrett talks about protecting the ball every day with his team, and the Cowboys go through drills each practice designed to promote ball security. That’s because Garrett says turnover differential is the single-most important stat in football -- and he’s right.
Teams that win the turnover battle are 101-30-1 this season. The Cowboys are 2-3 when they don’t win the turnover battle, which is actually pretty good.
But the reality is that the turnovers must cease. It’s too hard to win with them. The Cowboys have fumbled 10 times -- DeMarco Murray has five -- this season. Only Philadelphia with 11 has more.
Tony Romo has done a good job protecting the ball since the opener against San Francisco. Romo threw three interceptions in his first 14 passes of the season; he has thrown just three in his last 255 passes.
“The games later in the year -- and if you’re lucky enough to be playing in January -- the turnovers are going to be what ultimately decides your season,” Romo said. “You can play a great football game and be a better team, but if you give up the ball, you’re not going to be able to accomplish your goals. I think that’s a very big key for us.”
Patmon has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and is expected to miss 2-3 weeks.
Romo, who is playing through two transverse process fractures in his back, did not practice on Wednesday, following the same script he has had since the second game of the season.
Linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, who are coming back from knee injuries, are on the practice field for the second straight day.
“Seemed like he did a good job,” coach Jason Garrett said of McClain’s work on Wednesday. “He really practiced fully and did everything that we asked him to do.”
Road warriors: The Cowboys are the only unbeaten team on the road this season (4-0), and Dallas has won its past two games at MetLife Stadium against the Giants. They haven’t won three straight road games against their rival since they took nine in a row from 1971 to 1979. The last time the Cowboys won their first five road games in a season was 2007 when they started 7-0 and win the division.
The Cowboys are outscoring their opponents by 10.0 points per game away from home, the best differential in the NFL.
Better on the road, Part 2: One reason for the Cowboys 4-0 record on the road has been the play of Tony Romo. He has a Total QBR of 87.1 in road games is by far the highest in the NFL.
In the first meeting against the Giants, Romo posted a Total QBR of 98, his second-highest QBR of the season and the highest he has ever posted against the Giants.
Stay with the formula: DeMarco Murray has rushed for 100 yards in all but one game this season, becoming the first player in NFL history with 100 rush yards in nine of his team’s first 10 games.
He needs 115 rush yards to pass Emmitt Smith for the most through 11 games in Cowboys history. Smith had 1,347 yards in the first 11 games of the 1995 season. Tony Dorsett posted 1,144 yards in the first 11 games of the 1981 season.
Murray leads the NFL with 1,233 yards in 10 games.
In sync: Romo is completing 71.4 percent of his throws to Dez Bryant after halftime, with four touchdown passes and just one interception.
In the Week 7 meeting against the Giants, Bryant had 151 receiving yards on nine catches, which is the fourth most in his career. He’s one of six players this season with 150 receiving yards in multiple games.
“He had five interceptions?” said Spencer. “We’re not worried about what they do, we’re just worried about what we do and we have to affect him any way we can.”
In his career, Manning is 10-10 against his NFC East rival and has thrown more touchdowns (41) and interceptions (22) against the Cowboys than any other team.
Manning threw three touchdowns in the first meeting between the teams this season, a 31-21 Cowboys victory at AT&T Stadium.
He didn’t have receiver Victor Cruz in that game because he was nursing an injury and he won’t have him again this week since Cruz is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery.
He does have rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who cornerback Orlando Scandrick said is getting better each week.
With the Giants' season withering away less than two months from the close of the season, the Cowboys expect a proud Manning to rebound from his difficult game the previous week.
“Eli, he won two Super Bowls, the guy can play,” Scandrick said. “Last week was unfortunate, he had a tipped ball, missed a couple of throws, but Eli can play.”
Added Jason Garrett: "Well, he’s just a really good player and has been for a long time. When you play that position in this league, you’re going to have some games where it doesn’t go your way and he’s proven throughout his career that he always comes back.”
Brent showed up on the injury report Wednesday with a sore groin but took part in a full practice.
Garrett said Brent, who is listed at 320 pounds, has done a good job losing weight since returning to the practice field. But has he practiced enough? Thursday’s session will be Brent’s seventh since the car accident that cost the life of teammate and best friend Jerry Brown.
In order for Brent to play Sunday, the Cowboys will have to alter their defensive line rotation and possibly sit a player that has played fairly well.
"He has made a lot of great strides," Garrett said. "I think he is really changing his body and working hard at that. He understands the importance of doing that and how much it impacts on him on the field in terms of stamina and his ability to move throughout a play and from play to play. He has been a good player for us in the past. He is working hard to get back to that stage."
The last time Brent played, he was a 3-4 nose tackle. The Cowboys now employ a 4-3 scheme that calls for different techniques among their defensive tackles. Brent brings size to a defensive line that has just one player listed at more than 300 pounds (Nick Hayden).
"One thing about Josh is that he is very athletic," Garrett said. "He is athletic with his feet. He is athletic with his hands. He can get off of blocks. Those are the traits you are looking for. He is a competitive guy. He is a tough guy. He is in the stage of trying to get his body right and his feet underneath him."
DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, Dez Bryant and Dwayne Harris are all free agents after the season.
Bryant’s contract negotiations have received the most attention, especially recently with his high-profile move to Roc Nation. Murray’s talks have been a little slower and not as public. Harris is a restricted free agent after the season, so the Cowboys essentially control his fate for another season.
Carter is an unrestricted free agent but faces the most uncertain future. The Cowboys have other decisions to make at the spot, too, with Rolando McClain and Justin Durant set to be unrestricted free agents. The Cowboys will welcome back Sean Lee from a knee injury in 2015, setting up a game of musical chairs.
Carter has been up and down this season but has settled in as a strong-side linebacker. He is sixth on the defense with 39 tackles. With two interceptions, he is tied for the team lead with McClain. Carter has a sack, a tackle for loss, three quarterback pressures and five pass deflections.
“When my time is called for me to go out there and perform,” Carter said, “I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to the best of my ability and when the season ends or however it ends, everything is just going to play itself out.”
Carter said he has not thought much about his future.
“I love it here,” Carter said. “It’s been a great organization, since Day 1 when I got the first call when I was getting drafted. So it’ll be a nice place to stay. But it is a business, so we’ll just see how it goes.”
Patmon suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee against the Jacksonville Jaguars and is looking at 2-3 weeks on the sideline. He said he also hurt his ankle in the game. Patmon said the knee has improved since returning home from London, but he was unsure when he would be able to practice again.
“I’ve heard it’s kind of harder because (cornerbacks), we’re doing so much cutting and change-of-direction stuff,” Patmon said of his comeback. “I’ve been told it’s harder for DBs, so I’ve got to feel it out and when I feel good enough, just get back out there.”
Linebacker Rolando McClain (knee) and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (knee) were in full pads and on the practice field Wednesday. Neither played against the Jaguars, but McClain was active.
Micah Pellerin will take the fourth cornerback snaps in practice this week and is expected to be called up from the practice squad before Sunday's game against the New York Giants.
Romo went through the walkthrough Wednesday morning.
Garrett said the bye week was beneficial to Romo and the entire team.
"It's just really been about the rhythm of the week for him and getting the work in this morning with the walkthrough and getting his rehab in this afternoon and not throwing three days in a row," Garrett said. "It's worked out well for him, so he comes back tomorrow and then gets two good days in and then Saturday is off and you play Sunday. It's been a good thing for him. We've managed players through the years a lot of different ways in how you try to get them to Sunday and give them the best chance to be successful. This has been pretty good for us so far so we want to continue it this week."
With a quick turnaround leading up to the Thanksgiving Day game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Garrett said the focus is only on the New York Giants and not how to make sure Romo can make it through two games in five days.
The Cowboys return to Dallas early Monday morning and play the Eagles on Thanksgiving. The practice schedule is altered with more walkthrough-type sessions during the week.
"I think everyone's practice plan changes as you play these games," Garrett said. "As you know everyone in the league is playing Thursday games so you settle into a schedule that hopefully allows you to get ready for that game. But let me make this real clear: We're focused on this game and what we need to do today to get our team right to play as well as we can."
But the Cowboys are the only undefeated team away from home this season, going 4-0. Going back to last year, the Cowboys have won five straight away from home.
“I think this team has done a really good job of it doesn’t matter who, when or where,” tight end Jason Witten said. “That’s not just talk. I really believe this team has kind of bought into this is how we have to play and when we do this, we play well and when we don’t we get beat.”
Tony Romo has had one pass intercepted on the road this season. The Cowboys have rushed for at least 123 yards in every road game. They have won the turnover battle in three of the four road games, losing it only at the Seattle Seahawks.
“We’ve made big plays in big moments that allow you to win those games,” Witten said.
Against the Tennessee Titans, Romo converted a third-and-15 pass to Dez Bryant on a third-quarter scoring drive that stopped a Titans comeback. Bruce Carter had an interception return for a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams. The Cowboys dominated the Seahawks on the ground but needed a third-and-20 completion to Terrance Williams to win the game. C.J. Spillman recovered a fumbled punt that led to the Cowboys’ first touchdown in the win against the Jacksonville Jaguars at London’s Wembley Stadium.
“I think we approach the game the same every week regardless if it’s home or away,” defensive end George Selvie said. “With our offense, they have a great running game. We know they’re going to run the ball, get first downs, and that’s going to quiet the crowd.”
The Cowboys have not finished with a winning record away from home since 2009 (5-3), the last time the made the playoffs. They have not won their first five road games of a season since 2007 when they finished with an NFC-best 13-3 record.
The Cowboys final two home games are against the Philadelphia Eagles (Thanksgiving) and Indianapolis Colts (Dec. 21).
“I guess maybe there’s less distractions for us, I’m not sure,” defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford said. “But I know that we’ve got to do better at home. We’ve still got two games at home, so we’ve got to do better there and take care of what we’ve got to do on the road and everything will work out.”
He watched a little of the Philadelphia Eagles' loss to the Green Bay Packers, but that was it. On Tuesday, Murray and the Cowboys return to Valley Ranch to start their final six-week stretch of the regular season.
Murray, who has already surpassed his career highs in rushing yards and carries, figures to play an even bigger role down the stretch than he did in the first 10 games of the season.
Murray leads the NFL with 1,233 yards on 244 carries with seven touchdowns. He has had 100 yards rushing in nine of the Cowboys’ 10 games. Before this season, he never had more than 1,121 yards or 217 carries in a season.
As much as his body needed the rest, he felt the time off did wonders for his mind, too.
“I don’t know about anyone else, but I just totally got away,” Murray said. “I didn’t watch it. I didn’t concentrate on it. So I’m excited. I think we’re all recharged and ready to go.”
With four of their six games on the road and all in cold-weather cities, the Cowboys are built more for the upcoming stretch than in years past where they relied on Tony Romo’s right arm. The Cowboys still rely on Romo and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, but Murray’s legs have been a large factor in the success.
“Obviously we’re running the ball well, and I think we’re throwing it well, too,” Murray said. “So in this part of the year, it’s cold, the weather, so I think running is going to be a little bit more of a factor for us, which is good. We’ve got a strong offensive line. We’ve got some backs who can run and also got a lot of guys on the edge that can go up and get the ball. So it’s going to be huge for us.”